Contemporary Sudanese music draws a lot of influences both from Arabic musical as well as subsaharan traditions. “[…]It is rooted in the madeeh (praising the Prophet Mohamed in song). The genre filled out into something quite irreverent in the 1930s and 1940s when haqiba music, the madeeh ‘s secular successor, caught on. Haqiba, a predominantly vocal art in which the musicians accompanying the lead singer use few instruments, spread like wildfire in the urban centres of Sudan. It was the music of weddings, family gatherings and wild impromptu parties.
Haqiba drew inspiration from indigenous Sudanese and other African musical traditions in which backing singers clapped along rhythmically and the audience joined in both song and dance. The lead singer’s incantations induced a trance-like experience in which spectators swayed along to the rhythm of the beat“ as Gamal Nkrumah wrote in a 2004 article Al Ahram Weekly newspaper. One of the first singers we at Habibi Funk came across some years ago and who struck a chord with us was Sharhabil Ahmed. Sharhabil was born in 1935 and he is the founding father of the Sudanese Jazz scene. His aim was to modernize Sudanese music by bringing it together with western influences and instrumentation like he summarized it himself in a 2004 interview for „Al Ahram Weekly“:
“[…]Haqiba music, you know, was traditional vocal music with little accompaniment beyond a tambourine. When our generation came in the 1960s, we came with a new style. It was a time of worldwide revolution in music. In Europe, the rhythms of swing and tango were being replaced by jazz, samba, rock- and-roll. We were influenced by this rejuvenation in Sudan, too. I started out by learning to play the oud and traditional Sudanese music, and got a diploma from the music institute of Khartoum University. But my ambition was to develop something new. For this, the guitar seemed like the best instrument. Western instruments can approximate the scales of Sudanese music very well. After all, a lot of Western music is originally from Africa. I have absorbed different influences, from traditional Sudanese rhythms to calypso and jazz, and I hold them together in my music with no difficulty.”
Referring to its sonic apperance, Sudanese Jazz hasn’t too much in common with the western idea of Jazz. Sharhabil’s sound feels more like a unique combination of surf, rock n roll, funk, Congolese music and East African harmonies a.o. So it kind of made sense to me, while visiting him in Sudan, to see the records he kept over the years: 2 of his own and 2 by Mulatu Astatke signed to him, further proving the influence of Ethiopian and other neighboring countries. In fact, Sharhabil was not just one of many Sudanese Jazz artist. He is the king of Jazz, literally, since in he won a competion over other artists for that title.
Around the same time we first heard Sharhabil’s music we released a Hip Hop project on Habibi Funk’s sister label by a German producer called Pawcut and a Sudanese MC called Zen-Zin. The two had never met in person but connected over the internet and the result of the exchange was a demo we liked so much that we decided to release it. Zen-Zin was probably the first person we asked whether he knew anything about Sharhabil his answer was, “His son lives next door from me. We actually have a project together, his father and mine are old friends”. What might feel like a crazy coincidence actually turns out to be some kind of recurring serendipity. It’s only one of many stories, in which the stars align the paths in our favor and make projects possible. Be that as it may, Zen-Zin connected us with Mohamed, Sharhabil’s son, who at this point was in the process of moving to New York to pursue his own music career.
Mohamed was interested in the idea and shared it with his dad, who was fond of looking into it. We went back and forth to share ideas and suggestions. Finding Sharhabil’s music in a quality that it could be used as source for this release was a particular though task. It was easy to find a lot of songs on the internet but all of them in very bad quality. It took us years to find good source material, with occasional hick-ups like master tapes that also did not produce a satisfying quality.
In 2017, we visited Sudan for the first time personally and was lucky to meet Sharhabil in his house in Omdurman. Despite being in his mid 80s he’s still very active and mentally sharp with a vivid memory filled with artistic achievement from his musical work to his work as a comic artist, something he his equally known for in Sudan. The following year we featured his song “Argos Farfish” on our first compilation. And what a song it is! Driven by an an electric guitar, horns and Sharhabil’s energetic yet smooth voice it’s a personal favorite on this release. Why this release is only coming out now? I really can’t tell you! But at least finally here it is. The king of jazz is holding court.